JESUS POINTS US
TO THE OBEDIENT SON.
In the name + of Jesus.
In last week's Gospel, the master of the vineyard went to the marketplace to find day workers. He hired many, and he sent them to work in his vineyard. In today's Gospel, it is a father who calls his own sons to go out and work in his vineyard. These two are not merely hired hands who serve the master for a day. They are sons of the house and heirs of the estate. They already possess all of the good things of their father. To serve one's father when asked should not be considered a burden. It was their own estate which would benefit from their labors, and their father would be honored by their work.
When the father asked the first son to go into the vineyard and work for him, he replied rudely: “I will not,” but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. (Matthew 21:29-30) Now the parable was told as a warning to the Pharisees. They were the religious leaders, not only studying the Scriptures but also teaching it to others. They knew what God desired of all people. And they gave the response to their heavenly Father just as the second son had. It was a dutiful, “Yes, Lord. I will Lord. I know.” But the Pharisees only paid lip service to their Father's word. They did not do the things they said they knew were right.
On the other hand, Jesus told them, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” (Matthew 21:31) The tax collectors and prostitutes were like the first son who heard the word of the Lord and replied, “No. I will not. I will do what I want and serve myself.” The tax collectors were thieves. They were Jews hired by the Romans to tax their fellow Jews. They inflated the amount of tax which they were owed and pocketed the extra for themselves. Everyone knew it, but no one could really do anything about it without facing charges for tax evasion. For this, the tax collectors were despised. And prostitutes? Well, we know what they did. And yet, when John the Baptist preached and called them to repent of their sinful ways, they did. They did not merely say they were wrong and were sorry. They gave up stealing and selling themselves. Both gave up lucrative habits because they were wicked habits.
Now, remember, both were considered sons in the parable Jesus told. All the people Jesus spoke about were Israelites under God's covenant. Both knew the word of the Lord and, therefore, their Father's will. And both had sinned against him. The Pharisees, however, did not repent, but persisted in not following the will of their Father.
It is hard not to read through this parable and to try to figure out which son you are. In fact, that is why the parable is told. It is a warning either way. Tax collectors and prostitutes were not told that their sins did not matter. Their sins were obvious, and everyone in society knew it. They were commanded to repent and flee their sinful living; and they did. The Pharisees, on the other hand, enjoyed a good reputation in their society. They were the polite son. They said all the right things. Every Christian should take warning so that we do not become Pharisees. We come to church and publicly confess that we are sinners—that we have done what is evil and failed to do what is good. The confession is pretty generic. It is true, but it is still generic. We probably do not take stock of the specific sins we have committed against God. And if we have not been specific, then we probably are not too intent on fleeing from the sins we are guilty of. It is easy to confess generic sins; we bristle when we are called to repent of specific infractions. For example, it is easy to agree with, “You shall not steal.” But we get defensive when we hear, “Stop telling the theme park your son is twelve so you can save $5 on admission and then brag about it to your family.”
Take warning: Like the Pharisees, we say all the right words. We know what the Father's will is, and we know the right thing to do. But we do not follow up the right words with the right actions. We think that since our sins are not as obvious as that of a prostitute, then we don't need to be so concerned about our repentance. Or we think that God's absolution is also God's permission to change nothing. Repent. The prostitutes and tax collectors are more commendable than that.
Throughout our lives, we have been both sons—both the son who rejected the Father's word, and the son who politely said he would do the Father's will but did not. We have vowed to live according to God's truth, but in our weakness or laziness, we did not do it. Or we have heard the word of the Lord and protested, “That is too hard. That will cost me something. I will not do it.” Both are wrong. Both are sin. None of us has been an obedient child of God.
But your place in God's kingdom is not yours because you have been such an obedient son. Your place in God's kingdom is yours because of another son. He is not a son mentioned in the parable. He is the Son who told the parable.
Jesus Christ is the perfectly obedient Son of the Father. Even before the creation of the world, the Father had determined that his Son would come into the world to save sinners. The Son obeyed the Father's will. He did not argue or shirk his duties. The Almighty God came into this world as a helpless infant. The designer of the universe and the laws of physics submited himself to the sinful designs of mankind and their corrupted laws. What's more, the Son of God came to suffer for crimes he did not commit and to die under a curse he did not deserve. Jesus was not only innocent of crimes; he was holy in all things.
Now, if you were falsely accused of a crime, you would not humbly and quietly go to prison for it. If someone handed you a large fine for someone else's violation, you would refuse to pay and get pretty enraged about it. You recognize that justice means the guilty should pay the price for their own misdeeds. Jesus points you to the obedient Son. He dutifully took up sins he did not commit. He willingly accepted as his own the charges that stood against us. Jesus paid the price for all sinners. Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. (1 Peter 3:18) It is that holy, innocent sufferings and death, willingly endured by Jesus for us, that saves us. This is what the Lord says, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” (Galatians 3:26) The blood of Christ marks you as children of God. And if you are children of God, then you are heirs of his estate.
Jesus points us to the obedient Son. The Son of God has made you all sons of God. And if you are sons, then you are called to live according to the will of your Father in heaven. Even though you will not hit perfection in this life, you will still strive for it. You have been taught the word of God so that you know what faithful, obedient service looks like. God shows you what is good in his commandments. He does not tell you it will always be easy. You will be fighting against the world which mocks you for denying yourself whatever sins you can get away with. You will be fighting your own flesh which yearns and aches for sinful pleasures. And your flesh will also gripe when doing what is good and right is inconvenient or costly. Still, the fight and the struggle are necessary. The tax collectors and prostitutes did not use Jesus' forgiveness as a reason to return to their trade. They abandoned what was wicked because sin brings a curse. They turned to Jesus for forgiveness of their sins and for strength to live as the Father desires.
And so it is with you. Jesus is the obedient Son who calls you to be obedient children. Even though you are weak, God does not revoke his love. Even though you fall into temptation, God does not withhold his mercy. He still assures you that you are his beloved child. He works repentance in you, which not only seeks forgiveness, but also seeks the strength to will and to live according to the Father's will.
We confess our sins, and we confess our faith. But our confession is not merely lip-service. We give our whole lives to confessing our faith. We do not just call ourselves children of the heavenly Father; we strive to live like it. And our comfort forever remains this: that our Father in heaven delights to call us his children for Jesus' sake, now and forever.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.